Life After Breast Cancer: The Survivorship Journey
You’ve just finished your last round of chemotherapy or radiation. Emotionally, you’ve been tested like never before. You survived! Where do you go from here?
The survivorship phase of breast cancer can be tricky as you ease back into daily life and find your "new normal." You are joining a group of nearly 3 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S.—a growing group thanks to breakthroughs in research, earlier detection, more accurate diagnoses and targeted treatments. And while many survivors lead long and fulfilling lives, cancer and cancer treatment can be followed by delayed or long-term physical and emotional challenges, including ongoing fatigue and memory problems, higher risk of cancer recurrence, heart disease, depression and sexual dysfunction.
Though nothing can prepare you for a cancer diagnosis, in partnership with your doctors, you can plan for the challenges and opportunities in to the next phase of your journey. Wilmot Cancer Institute oncologist Dr. Michelle Shayne offers these tips for setting your path through breast cancer survivorship:
- Pace yourself. You can’t rush healing from cancer treatment. Your new normal might include reducing the amount of activities you can take on in one week, or easing back into a work schedule.
- Get the facts. Having information at your fingertips can be settling and make you feel more in control of what’s next. Ask your oncology team for details about your diagnosis and treatment—the exact stage and type of cancer, any surgery or procedures, what type of chemotherapy and the dose, as well as radiation dosages and locations of the body it was delivered.
- Find strength in your community. Hearing the perspective of someone who has walked in your shoes can help you cope with some of the emotional and physical side effects after cancer treatment. Seek out breast cancer support groups in your community, as well as online, to connect with others.
- Become a “foodie.” A healthy lifestyle is built on a nutritious diet. Look for a nutritionist who understands the specific needs of a breast cancer survivor. Find fun ways to incorporate these foods into your daily routine, take a cooking class, or start a healthy supper club with friends.
- Move your body. While this may not be feasible at the beginning of your recovery, light physical activity will help you lead a healthy life moving forward. Yoga, hiking or dancing are a few fun ways to get moving.
- Understand what could come next. While you’ve just had to process all of the information on your diagnosis and treatment, it is important to also understand the possible late effects of the specific treatment you had.
- Be your own advocate. Cancer treatment can cause you to have lingering pain, fatigue and “chemobrain” that impairs your memory or ability to focus. Don’t hesitate to call your oncologist to discuss ways to manage symptoms or address questions you may have.
It's common to be anxious about your health and everyone is unique in the way that they cope. Remember, every cancer survivor is different—some need more information and support services than others, depending on diagnosis and treatment. Defining what wellness is for you and setting a path to being healthy again will only help you better enjoy the next steps of your journey.
Michelle Shayne, M.D., is a breast oncologist and the clinical co-director of the Judy DiMarzo Survivorship Program at the Wilmot Cancer Institute. Dr. Shayne's clinical and research interests are in breast cancer and survivorship.